2007 - 2021

Trans Eorpa Express

In responding positively to Shona Craven’s article in the National last week, I received a deluge of criticism, some valid, some perhaps less so. What seems clear is that a critical debate about human rights, gender and patriarchy is busting out – but often takes place in silos where language, jargon and understandings are shared in closed circles. There is deep ignorance, fear, and distrust. After realising that social media isn’t the right platform to have a useful debate and after several people contacted Bella asking for space to write, we thought it would be good to respond.

Since Nicola Sturgeon pledged to radically reform gender recognition law for trans people, including those of non-binary gender, back in 2016, this issue has been building:

“Sturgeon’s vow to reform the devolved legislation to “bring it in line with international best practice” will allow transgender individuals to change their birth certificate and other official documents to recognise their gender status without having to appear before a tribunal of psychiatrists.”

There seems to be a need to open this discussion into a wider arena in a way that is fair and positive. So I wanted to clarify and offer some ideas about a way forward.

A) I’m totally supportive of the trans community and all minority and persecuted groups facing discrimination and oppression. I’m sorry for in any way suggesting otherwise.
B) Many people are absolutely concerned with trans rights as a human rights issue. Many people are also concerned at the rolling back of women’s rights.
C) The article wasn’t ‘a primer’ and I shouldn’t have described it a such by myself. A primer would be a really good idea as a much wider public become aware of this issue for the very first time and are faced with a wall of highly contentious jargon.
D) I would be open to publishing peoples views on the way forward in open dialogue and in respectful good faith.These would include contributions from the transgender, lesbian, feminist and straight communities.
E) These articles would be moderated for abusive comment.
F) No one community or perspective has a monopoly on the truth. The ability to enter into open dialogue – to listen as well as speak – seems essential.
G) This debate touches on what Bella considers the wider issues of ‘self-determination’ and ‘autonomy’.

The idea of hosting this debate is motivated by the idea that supporters of trans and women’s rights are two groups that should have common cause as part of a wider movement against oppression.

Your thoughts / reflections / input are very welcome.

If this seems feasible / desirable and workable we will explore it, if it doesn’t we won’t.

Progressive and human rights are under assault by the new right – we need to come together and work out differences in common struggle. Let’s do that.

Comments (7)

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  1. Crubag says:

    It’s an interesting area for public policy -I don’t know that there is a specific Scottish angle on it though the Scottish Government making reassignment easier might be worth discussing.

    My 2p worth is that sex is something biologically determined, but gender is something culturally determined. A lot of the tensions occuring at the moment seem to come from conflating the two. (And why stop at only two genders?)

    An example would be women’s sports, where if gender is determined to be the same as sex, then xy chromosome people will be able to enter women’s events and have an advantage over the average xx competitor. Maybe we’ll end up with open and xx events instead.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    I read Ms Craven’s article twice, and, to be frank, I could not understand what she was arguing for and against. Like you, I support the rights of groups such as ‘trans’ people . (I thought I knew what this term connotes, but, after reading Ms Craven’s piece and those of some others, I am no longer clear. Hence the use of inverted commas.)

    Where I felt Ms Craven’s article failed was that it did not seem to have a sense of audience other than for those of a small group of journalists and other campaigners who also use various social media to conduct their discourses. It made heavy use of terms, which have everyday meanings, but also have more precise meanings in the discourse and carry a fair amount of other things ‘understood’. The sociologist Basil Bernstein in the 1950s wrote of ‘restricted and elaborated codes’ as one tool to help analyse cultural issues. I felt that Ms Craven was making use of a restricted code, restricted to groups who are particularly involved in this debate.
    Ms Craven appeared to be critical (as I said, I could not really comprehend her piece) of Mr Patrick Harvey MSP. I have a great deal of respect for Mr Harvey and find him to be a very good communicator who puts the ‘Green’ case across with clarity and coherence. His response to Ms Craven listed a significant group of women’s organisations who have long and distinguished histories of campaigning who had expressed concerns about the consultation. I tended to agree with his response and by the reported positions of these groups.

    I think Ms Craven and her Editor have to be graded D- “could do better”. She is writing in a pubic newspaper which has a readership with a range of interests and varying knowledge levels about others (I am in that category with regard to the topic she seemed to be writing about). Her task as a journalist is to help clarify the wider public, who have become increasingly confused by the continually expanding acronym, LGBTI+, which, she seemed to be indicating was itself under attack.

    So, Mr Small, I welcome your offer to host such a discourse, under the conditions you list if it helps me and others get an understanding of what is involved and how we can assist in ensuring that people considered to be or declaring themselves to be ‘trans’ do not suffer violence, abuse and discrimination.

  3. Shona Craven says:

    Dear Alasdair

    I really appreciate you taking the time and effort to try to understand what are complicated and confusing issues. This is a vast topic and it was certainly a challenge to try to capture key points of disagreement while also seeking to illuminate one particular aspect (attempts by women to obtain clarity about the current Scottish Government consultation, and to freely discuss the implications of a range of interlinked legislative proposals). I will attempt to provide the starting point for a jargon-free “primer” here, and hope you will forgive me if any of my explanations seem inadequate, redundant or patronising.

    I can appreciate why you must feel you must be missing something, but your initial question about what “trans” actually means is in fact at the heart of the current debate around the Gender Recognition Act 2004. You are certainly not alone in your confusion. I should perhaps leave it to trans contributors to offer a definition/definitions of this term and others such as the verb “to transition”.

    The definition of another word in my column, “cis”, is very much related – this term means “not trans”, in the same way that “straight” means “not gay”. Some people don’t like the word “cis” (including women who only see it used in the context of threats or abusive messages) while others find it useful, considering it more civil to express what someone *is*, rather than what they are not (for example, I would much rather be called a “woman” than a “non-man”), and certainly much more polite than using words such as “normal” (and therefore a spoken or implied “abnormal”) to describe people. By “cis lesbian” I mean a biological woman who is sexually attracted to other biological women. However, that is not to say that it is impossible to have a biological woman who is attracted to other biological women and is also trans, because “being trans” is a matter of self-identification (socially, and potentially soon also legally).

    I appreciate your frustrations with the “code”, and certainly agree that the use of unfamiliar language (or language that *seems* familiar but is used in new or unexpected ways) excludes many from the debate, whether by design or accident. I tried my best to make my column accessible to those who were new to these discussions, but unfortunately there simply aren’t widely agreed “precise meanings in the discourse”, and indeed this is the very nub of the issue. There is no agreed definition of words and phrases such as “man”, “woman”, “biological sex” or “gender identity”.

    Furthermore, the words sex and gender are often used interchangeably, which causes a lot of confusion, especially as sex and gender identity are two distinct “protected characteristics”, ie characteristics set out in equality laws and/or government or other policies designed to ensure people are not unfairly discriminated against. Usually a employer will not be able to specify that candidates must be, for example, a particular age or sex or ethnicity, but sometimes exemptions may apply, for example a women’s/men’s support charity could legally recruit a women’s/men’s support officer of that same sex.

    Looking up the Scottish Government’s consultation document (it’s called “Review of the Gender Recognition Act 2004”) may provide further clarification, although you may find its use of “code” compounds your confusion. Ideally, of course, a public consultation on an issue that could directly or indirectly affect a lot of citizens should ideally be accessible and comprehensible to a wide audience. I will leave you to assess whether those drafting the consultation have been more successful than I have in communicating about the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act and their implications.

    Kind regards
    Shona Craven

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:


      Thank you for taking the time to clarify some of the misunderstandings – and frustrations – I experienced while reading your article. Thank you, too, for not taking offence at my comments, for none were intended, but, sometimes annoyance can be felt when one has written passionately about something in which one believes strongly.

      ASI said, I hope Mr Small starts a discourse about an issue which, although only a relatively small number of people are affected, is nevertheless about the creation of a tolerant and caring society in which all can participate without let, hindrance, violence or abuse.

  4. Dennis Smith says:

    Like Alasdair Macdonald I struggle to understand both the terminology and the substantive issues here and I am grateful to Shona Craven for her moves to clarify things. It is difficult to have a constructive debate when different parties disagree about, or systematically misunderstand, the key terms involved.

    It may be useful to recall the term ‘trouser-word’ invented by the philosopher J.L. Austin. In many binary distinctions one of the terms ‘wears the trousers’ (a suitably sexist metaphor in this context) and implicitly defines the meaning of the other. Shona Craven offers two examples: ‘cis’ means ‘non-trans’ and ‘straight’ means ‘non-gay’. Politically I sympathise with the motives behind these definitions but I can’t accept them as logically neutral. Other people may wish to reverse them and say that ‘trans’ means ‘non-cis’ and ‘gay’ means ‘non-straight’. The trans/cis metaphor is loaded: it describes a transit from here to elsewhere without saying how ‘here’ is defined. The meaning of ‘here’ is central to the debate and it needs to be discussed openly, not assumed without argument.

    The same is true of the key word ‘biological’. If it is taken as one half of a binary, what is it opposed to? Cultural? Part of this debate used to be phrased as ‘nature versus nurture’ but (as I understand it) scientists nowadays tend to see human ‘nature’ in terms of an infinitely complex series of interactions and feedback loops between genetic and environmental factors. Where does this leave biology? Or the free will versus determinism argument?

    Ultimately this discussion can’t avoid engaging with big philosophical questions. Is there such a thing as objective or intersubjective truth? And if so how can it be established? There are worries that we inhabit an increasingly post-truth (Trumpian?) universe where something can become true if it is repeated often and loudly enough. If we are to avoid this fate, clarity matters.

  5. Charlie says:

    I would welcome an exploration/explanation of the issue. After unquestioningly supporting every aspect of transgender rights for years, I recently became aware of the tensions between the LG and T parts of the LGBT spectrum and between feminist groups and trans activists (I know these groups also overlap, but I came across these conflicts in different countries, hence I’ve separated them).

    After educating myself about the reasons behind the conflict and about the wider implications of the new legislation, I also read a lot of material written by transwomen speaking out against self-certification and medical research regarding transkids. As a consequence I have now changed my mind on the proposals and will respond to the consultation accordingly.

    But it seems that 99% of the people have no idea what the issue is and if they are aware at all, they tend to mostly know of the extremist positions (critics of self-certification are transphobes, self-certification is the holy grail for pedos). Clearly there’s a need for a public discourse in a safe and respectful space like Bella. I’m mulling over a piece on this, but would I be as brave as Shona and go public with it? I honestly don’t know…

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